[Aaron] just finished building an online 595 shift register simulator. These inexpensive chips let you extend the number of devices that can be controlled by a single microcontroller. You see them in quite a few LED multiplexing projects, included the Ping Pong Clock that we recently built. But they can be a bit tricky to fully grasp if you’re not familiar with the hardware.
This simulator gives you a point-and-click interface for the five possible control lines on a 595 shift register. There are three pins that must be manipulated to use the device; the serial in, clock, and latch pins. The other two are for clearing the register, and enabling output and can be considered optional. You can choose to control these with a microcontroller in your own projects for more flexibility, but often they are tied to either VCC or GND (depending on the chip) when these features are unnecessary. Give this simulator a try and then take what you learned over to a solderless breadboard and see if you can write some firmware to produce the same results. If you’re still having trouble you can take a look at this 595 tutorial for further information.